Mike Rowbottom: I witness the first nation to be officially welcomed to the London 2012 Games – and so does Seb Coe
Tuesday, 17 July 2012
Frozen in wait for them, a tableau of motleyed fools – in the medieval sense, that is – from the National Youth Theatre (NYT), bursting with flexibility and amiability. Some of the performers were in yellow and green, others in Union flag tops and tartan kilts, others in blue and white. There were young men in yellow bowler hats, there were what resembled British centurions, with punk-style Mohican wigs. And they were all waiting for the small party – two tracksuited athletes, a couple of tracksuited officials and perhaps 20 smartly dressed men and women tracking behind them – who stood behind a placard inscribed with the letters IVB.
There was, it has to be said, something faintly menacing about the scene as the middle rank of thespians went down to their imaginary marks, and the whole assembled crew shouted out a countdown in French – Trois! Deux! Un! – before the tension broke into a rendition of that most fey of ditties, I Want To Ride My Bicycle, by Queen. Naturally, bicycles soon wheeled in upon the uncertainly advancing team.
The two athletes – 100 metres runners J'Maal Alexander (pictured below arriving at Heathrow) and Tahesia Harrigan-Scott – both smiled a little uneasily as the wheeling, singing and acrobatics went on around them, perhaps feeling like theatregoers who had seated themselves too close to the front at a production keen on audience participation.
It soon became clear to the visiting party that their role was to stand their ground as the performance went on around them. The whole scene, meanwhile, was being watched by around a couple of hundred interested volunteers and a handful of media representatives. The Virgin Islanders held up their mobile phones to picture the spectators doing the same thing to them. Truly, the Interactive Games have arrived.
Frankly, had I just arrived off the plane from the British Virgin Islands I would just want to get straight to my accommodation for a shower and a kip rather than finding myself in the middle of theatrics. But any rising feelings of sympathy were quelled by the news that this was timing of the British Virgin Islanders' own choosing.
Both Harrigan-Scott (pictured below, second left) and Alexander, it transpired, had been staying with host families in the small Hertfordshire village of Aston, near Stevenage, before this official arrival.
Before too long there was an invitation to welcome the Village Mayor (Deputy Mayor in fact) Dame Tessa Jowell. The woman who had been so instrumental in persuading Tony Blair that the Olympics was a "good idea" was warmly welcoming herself, inviting the Islands' NOC representative up onto the dais beside her to put his monicker on a declaration of support for the Olympic Truce. Not really much of an option to that invitation.
And then, unexpectedly, Seb Coe turned up to add his words of welcome as chairman of the Organising Committee. After making the point that he did not expect to be performing a similar function at the remaining 203 Welcoming Ceremonies, he added a heartfelt thank-you to the team for being in London before posing for pictures with the entire IVB team arranged on either side of him.
For Coe, who has cut a gaunt figure on TV in recent days as news of less than 100 per cent ticket sales and the G4S (is that now pronounced "Guffaws"?) debacle have played out, this little outing represented a Good Olympic Moment. "There's plenty more to come," he reassured insidethegames.
As they wandered away from their first, successful Olympic gig, two of the performers from the NYT (pictured below) reflected excitedly upon an experience that will be repeated, more or less, on many occasions in this space over the next few days.
The Athletes' Village already shows signs of occupancy – one tower has Belgian flags on it, while another has a descending sequence of banners reading "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi". These other early arrivals will soon be on the rota for their own Official Welcomes as the 140 NYT performers, who are split into two groups, prepare for their own relatively long run.
"It's exciting," said Matthew Morrison, an NYT member from Mansfield. "I am still getting my breath back." Fellow performer Romy Alexander, from Worcester, explained that around 4,000 NYT members had entered two rounds of auditions for the 140 available places. The motleyed collection have already won their own Olympic competition.
For Coe, this all-singing, all-dancing exuberance was a world away from his own first taste of the Olympics – at the boycotted Games of Moscow in 1980. "My first welcome?" he reflected. "We had some of our property confiscated by security staff. I think I had something subversive like The Spectator in my luggage."
Coe added: "After three days I plucked up the courage to ask my 'minder' where the nearest nightclub was. He told me 'Helsinki'."
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.